If you want ‘Jurassic Park’ with a side of ‘Willy Wonka,’ Netflix has the toon for you
When “Jurassic Park: Camp Cretaceous” was only a title and an air date to me, I expected a live-action, budget version of a “Jurassic Park” movie, but with teens doing teenage things — I had hoped for “Spin & Marty,” basically, with velociraptors for ponies. As it turns out, the eight-episode series, which premieres Friday on Netflix, is a cartoon, in the popular “three-dimensional” CGI style, that takes place during the events of “Jurassic World,” on another part of the island. That is to say, there’s an Indominus rex in it.
Here’s the deal. Half a dozen kids who have either won a contest or pulled some sort of strings have been selected to beta test a “state-of-the-art adventure camp” on Isla Nubar, where dinosaurs roam the Earth again, thanks to science.
They comprise a variety pack of types, these young glampers, equally divided boy-girl. (Gender isn’t an issue, nor, for that matter, is sex; they will be too busy running for their lives even to bat an eyelash.) Brooklynn (Jenna Ortega) is a social media influencer; Kenji Kon (Ryan Potter), a cocksure (read: deeply insecure) rich kid; Sammy Gutierrez (Raini Rodriguez), down-home and bubbly; Ben Pincus (Sean Giambrone), a squeaky voice, delicate stomach and supply of hand sanitizer (“The world is a grab bag of gross and we’re all just along for the moist, sticky roller-coaster ride called life”); Yaz Fadoula (Kausar Mohammed), athletic, serious; and Darius Bowman (Paul-Mikél Williams), the Charlie Bucket of the piece, most meant to be there — in fact, the only one who seems to know or care anything at all about dinosaurs — and the designated Spielbergian wide-eyed fatherless child.
Jameela Jamil as camp counselor Roxie (responsible) and Glen Powell as camp counselor Dave (goofy) are the adults in the room. But they are often not in the room.
As is typically the case in a “Jurassic Park/World” story, security is bad, communication terrible and the whole business feels like a mistake from the start. “Can’t anyone associated with this place make just one good decision?” Yaz will ask, reasonably enough — although her bunkmates, too, are something short of careful.
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Indeed, all “Jurassic” products are about people making bad decisions, often the same ones over again, as pure science falls prey to late-period capitalism and the military pokes into anything they think might kill more people faster. The franchise itself enacts this idea: It will keep coming back as long as there is money to be squeezed out of rampaging dinosaurs on a tropical island.
On an individual level, this translates to the campers breaking rules, almost dying (i.e., being eaten), and then breaking rules again, and almost dying, until the end credits arrive to free them, at least temporarily, from this cycle. (Brooklynn: “I can’t believe how much went wrong, like that time we almost got eaten.” Yaz: “Which time? How was there more than one time?”) As I write, this is all beginning to feel depressingly like a COVID-19 metaphor, and as a comment on self-defeating human nature, the franchise is pretty bleak — though of course we are meant to enjoy the narrow escapes, as well as the eating.
The characters are not deeply drawn — nor were Fred, Velma, Daphne or Shaggy, for that matter — but their place in the gestalt is well defined, and in terms of story lines no camper is left behind. Each will get to face a fear, or come clean, or push through the pain, or help when help is most needed. There will be bonding (after initial mocking). Although the human characters have the smooth, sculpted look of “Thunderbirds” marionettes, and display a familiar repertoire of CGI shrugs and eye rolls, the acting keeps them real enough.
Conversely, the big, scaly lizards, as expertly as they have been realized, have none of the reality or personality of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion King Kong or a man in a Godzilla suit. The exception is a newborn Ankylosaurus — Squirtle, from Pokémon, was where my mind went — who imprints on Ben and is full of baby-animal adorableness. Every cartoon crew needs a cute animal, unless they are all animals already.
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That said, “Camp Cretaceous” knows its business and takes care of it. You will hear the familiar booming sound that precedes the appearance of a large dinosaur and feel the silence that precedes the sudden appearance of a smaller one. A fully grown adult person I was watching with gasped repeatedly through one sequence (that was all she could take). The John Williams musical themes, flown in from live-action soundtracks, lend some bigness to the cartoon space, and the writing is generally clever, and where it is not clever it is also not objectionable. Once in a while the kids get meta, “Scream” style, acknowledging the fate that has been written for them.
Kenji: “Something bad always happens when we think we’re safe… because that’s how this works.”
Brooklynn: “I’m pretty sure we’re safe now.”
Kenji: “Well, we were, until you said that.”
The end of the season makes little real-world sense, but we are not in a real world — we are in Jurassic World! — and it does set up a second helping. Welcome back, friends, to the show that never ends.
‘Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous’
When: Any time, starting Friday, Sept. 18
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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